Those that Lived It_Scalp Dance

A journalist for the Marysville, Kansas, Enterprise wrote this on August 17, 1867:

Go…and point a houseless, impoverished man to the smoking embers of his dwelling, the work of savage hands, where but yesterday he had stock, grain and plenty, after years of hardships and say to him, “the triumph of humanitarian principles.” Kneel beside the dying victims on the plains, scalped and disemboweled and to his ear whisper—”peace!” Clasp a maniac sister in your arms upon whose body sixty savage monsters have glutted their passions, restore her purity and call reason to its throne again with words of “peace!” Could the arrow and tomahawk but reach a few of the “peace” men in our national councils, their blood would color this Indian question with a hue that even Congressmen would understand. (Scalp Dance-Indian Warfare on the High Plains, 1865-1879 by Thomas Goodrich)

In September of 2018 my wife and I traveled to South Dakota to visit the Bad Lands and other sites in the state. We stopped in Chamberlain, South Dakota to visit a Catholic School that my dad had supported. The school is St. Joseph’s Indian School. The Native Americans that attend the school are from the various Sioux (Lakota) bands that are present in South Dakota.

The school features an excellent facility for the students as well as a Sioux Museum of high quality. As you tour the museum which is laid out in a circle and come to the end you find yourself in a large display that chronicles The Wounded Knee Massacre.

On December 29th, 1890 the US Seventh Cavalry (the same regiment nearly wiped out at The Little Big Horn in 1976 by the Sioux and Cheyenne) surrounded a band of Sioux with cavalrymen, artillery and Hotchkiss machine guns to force them to surrender and turn in their weapons. The Sioux had fled the reservation after Sitting Bull was murdered in the wake of the Ghost Dance (although Sitting Bull had no part in the Ghost Dance). The white authorities feared both the Ghost Dance and Sitting Bull. 

US cavalry on the High Plains

Reportedly, as the army tried to seize the Sioux weapons one of the Sioux who was deaf resisted. A shot was fired and to this day no one knows for sure by whom and the “battle” was on. When it was over 150+ Sioux were dead, cut down by the army’s vastly superior firepower. More than half of the dead Sioux were women and children. Twenty-five cavalrymen were also killed. It’s believed that most of the cavalrymen were killed by other cavalrymen in the vicious cross fire. Although called a “battle” at the time it’s now widely recognized as a massacre. The display at St. Joseph’s School is enough to bring even the most cold-hearted person to tears.

These days it is easy and I think right to view the Indians in the Indian Wars with a great deal of sympathy. Even some of the soldiers of the time who fought them viewed them with sympathy as they realized a people were losing not only their homes but their way of living as the buffalo (bison) were systematically destroyed by white hunters.

My wife and I also visited the Tatanka (Story of the Bison) Museum started by Kevin Costner off Dances with Wolves fame. We listened to a Native American Sioux tell the story of the buffalo and the way of life that was lost as the Plains Indians were forced on to reservations. The reservations  became a huge welfare system complete with rampant alcoholism and drug abuse. It was pointed out and truthfully so, that the government broke every treaty made with the Plains Indians.

That much is truth but it’s only part of the story. Other parts of the story include the Plains Indians warring among themselves and practicing the same kind of brutality on other tribes as they did on white settlers. Sadly, atrocities by all concerned were common and that accounts for the hatred expressed by the Kansas journalist quoted above.

Crazy Horse at the Little Big Horn (left). There are no known photographs of Crazy Horse and the ones that are out there are either fakes or mistakes.

Thomas Goodrich’s book, Scalp Dance-Indian Warfare on the High Plains 1865-1879 is a book written from the US Army’s and settler’s point of view. It details what is was like for cavalrymen, settlers and travelers that fought the Plains Indians, tried to settle the land and others just traveling through.

In a word, is was brutal. We look back on a clash of civilizations, one a budding super power and the other primitive in many ways. The super power has just fought and won the Civil War and is moving west. The primitive culture resists best they know how. What’s forgotten is that the person at the time only knew they lived in peril and needed the army to protect them. When the army could not the Indians and the army were blamed for the type of  incidents recorded above.

Scalp Dance is a book that does not make apologies for telling the story through the eyes of the soldiers and settlers who experienced Plains Warfare between 1865-1879. It’s filled with quotes and and an extensive index as to where the quotes come from.

An alternative title for Scalp Dance could have been Scalp Dance, High Plains Warfare in the Words of Those Who Lived it.

I needed to be reminded of that. I do sympathize with the American Indian so it’s easy to look back and judge the hatred of the journalist who wrote those words above. But I did not live through it or experience loss like some did. I enjoyed the book because I needed to be reminded I was not there and much of history is written by those who were..

My wife and I were touched by the plight of the Sioux in South Dakota. We wondered what we could do and being conservative Protestants we searched for a Protestant school among the Sioux. We found a Christian School called Windswept Academy on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation near Eagle Butte, South Dakota. We’ve made the school part of our regular giving. We cannot do anything about lingering hatreds and continued injustices but we can do something to help educate Sioux children so that they might escape the crippling reservation life they are part of.

The pictures below were taken at the Tatanka (Story of the Bison) Museum

Me at the Crazy Horse Memorial and Museum.

3 comments on “Those that Lived It_Scalp Dance

  1. I bet that book was a very different perspective indeed. No matter how hard it is, I always think it’s important to study both sides in a conflict, especially the conflicts that we are so far removed from. With the Indian Wars, I think it’s extra hard given the many unthinkable atrocities involved like Wounded Knee, but that makes it all the more important. Only when we fully understand something can we hope to not repeat it, and also put a stop to the injustice. Education is a powerful tool, so that’s wonderful what you have done for the school!

    • True. I’ve read extensively on the Indian Wars and while aware of the atrocities it’s something else to hear from the people who lived through it. The newspaperman quote reflected the feelings of many. BTW, once again I can’t “like” on your blog. I think it’s goofed up on my end but I can’t figure it out. Do keep up your excellent work.

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